Defeating an Enemy According to Zen Buddhism

Defeating an Enemy According to Zen Buddhism

Last update: 02 September, 2020

Eastern philosophies see combat very differently than Western ones. For many of those schools of thought, defeating an enemy doesn’t mean bringing them down, destroying, or annulling them. For them, winning means neutralizing those who want to hurt us and, if possible, befriending them.

This perspective may sound very strange. Unfortunately, people usually consider beating their opponents a triumph that should make them happy. This comes from the idea that the result is more important than the process. Personal exaltation becomes more important than growth.

The problem is that defeating an enemy through hurtful, damaging ways usually gives place to a very temporary and relative triumph. Deep down, we’re feeding our enemy as well as the most negative part of ourselves. We may get immediate satisfaction but, at the same time, we’ll have strengthened every destructive emotion that’s inside of us.

“Your worst enemy cannot harm you as much as your own unguarded thoughts.”


Are we defeating an external or internal enemy?

Enemies can be internal or external. Zen tells us that internal enemies are much more dangerous and destructive than external enemies. Some internal enemies are anger, pride, hatred, etc. All these emotions are capable of blinding us and making us do things that go against ourselves.

External enemies, on the other hand, have limited power over us unless we give them an excessive amount of importance. In fact, they begin to take over when they manage to activate our internal enemies. Under the states of anger or hate, we lose the main tool we have: intelligence.

Therefore, Eastern philosophies teach us that defeating an external enemy isn’t possible unless we conquer our internal enemies first. If we don’t do this beforehand, we’ll be completely subjected to the influence and determination of our external enemies. We basically let them win.

Buddhist monk in front of the moon.

The real enemy

Zen philosophy also invites us to analyze who the real enemy is. They suggest that it isn’t an envious, selfish, or ambitious person that wants to hurt us. In reality, we’re facing emotions such as envy, selfishness, and ambition. All of these are negative aspects we keep inside of us. All of these feelings and passions can live inside ourselves.

“It is a man’s own mind, not his enemy or foe, that lures him to evil ways.”


Defeating an enemy means overcoming those feelings and emotions, regardless of who their carrier is and what their intentions are. For Zen Buddhists, we all contribute to creating more order and more chaos depending on how we act.

Conflict leads to chaos, which ends up affecting us sooner or later. Every action causes a reaction, meaning that hateful actions increase hatred. Zen Buddhism tells us to conquer an enemy instead of defeating them. Conflict is always unnecessary and makes us exhausted. It also brings more decadence to the world.

Defeating an enemy

According to Zen, every action aimed at defeating an enemy must be designed to neutralize them. That means blocking their possibilities of action. For example, if a person makes an offensive comment but you don’t let it affect you, you’ve neutralized that enemy. If they want to harm you and you decide to try to understand them instead of rejecting them, you’ve also won.

Buddhist monk reflecting on defeating an enemy.

Now, doing this is really hard when we haven’t worked on ourselves hard enough. We must work on distancing ourselves from all those passions and negative emotions. In addition, it’s important for us to start being more compassionate and understand the limitations of those who go through life hurting others.

As in Zen, in martial arts whoever manages to avoid combat also wins. If both parties get to learn and grow as a result of the confrontation, then it’s a true victory. The strategy is based on getting the enemy to realize that they’re wasting their strength and effort, that it’s all useless because their hatred isn’t hurting anyone and is only making them waste their energy.

“To practice Zen Buddhism is to train oneself to eliminate hatred, anger, and selfishness and to develop loving-kindness towards all.”

-Thich Thien-An-

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.